A day before its regular-season finale, Sporting Kansas City players and coaches gathered behind closed doors. The meeting was brief, but the message explicit.
Coach Peter Vermes reiterated the importance of driving momentum in a positive direction before the club embarked on its fourth straight postseason. The form of play, he explained, was perhaps just as important as the result.
New York dealt Sporting KC a 2-0 defeat Sunday in front of 19,188 fans at Sporting Park, which welcomed its 53rd consecutive MLS sellout but played host to only six home victories this season.
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Sporting KC concluded the regular season winless in three meetings with New York — the latest of which dropped Sporting KC into the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
And that means another date with New York to open the postseason. This time at their place.
It’s one-and-done, too.
The knockout match will take place at 7 p.m. Thursday at Red Bull Arena. The winner earns a conference semifinal series with top-seeded D.C. United. The loser heads home early.
“We got beat at our own place. We’re not happy about that. But that’s all in the past. It’s a new season now,” defender Seth Sinovic said. “We’re a team to be feared. We’re the defending champions. We have playoff experience. We’re ready to go.”
Those defending MLS Cup champions possessed an opportunity Sunday to earn the third seed in the conference — and thus avoid the knockout round — but that possibility required a victory, which took on a dubious outlook early into the game.
Bradley Wright-Phillips cemented his status as the Golden Boot winner with his 26th and 27th goals of the year. That tied an MLS record, set by Tampa Bay Mutiny forward Roy Lassiter in 1996 and matched by San Jose striker Chris Wondolowski in 2012.
The tallies Sunday, which followed mistakes from a visibly tired Sporting KC group, secured New York the home-field advantage Thursday.
Sporting KC owned the most road victories in the Eastern Conference this season, but it lost its only match in New York. And flipping Sunday’s convincing result from the Red Bulls isn’t an ordinary task.
“There’s no reason why we can’t get after them there,” defender Kevin Ellis said. “I think that we will. I think this will light a fire under some guys, myself included. We have to play better than that.”
Sporting KC played without keeper Andy Gruenebaum, midfielder Benny Feilhaber and defender Igor Juliao on Sunday. While Juliao was serving a one-game suspension, all three players were nursing injuries.
Juliao said he plans to test his hamstring injury Monday, but the coaching staff isn’t optimistic he will be ready to go for a mid-week game.
Eric Kronberg seems to be the choice in goal for a fourth straight game.
In other words, the club is unlikely to be awarded its full allotment of options for the knockout game — a fact that has become increasingly typical this season. Vermes said Sunday that his team looked tired. He pulled defender Lawrence Olum midway through the first half, later commenting, “He was out of gas.”
The players made similar remarks to one another in the postgame locker room, swapping stories of heavy legs.
“I think my legs were a little heavy, and I think some of the other guys were, as well,” forward Jacob Peterson said. “That’s not an excuse. We have to adapt. We didn’t. Straight up, they were the better team tonight, and they deserved to win.”
As for the momentum Sporting KC treasured — the one its coach spoke about Saturday — that won’t come from regular-season performance. Sporting KC closed out the season with only two wins over its last 10 matches.
It must win the next one to avoid an October exit.